NEIDHART (VON REUENTAL) (1190 - 1236)
Neidhart, who owing to a nineteenth-century misapprehension is sometimes still wrongly referred to as “von Reuental” (i.e. “from the Vale of Tears”), was one of the most popular Minnesingers of the late Middle Ages, even though (or more likely “because”) his songs mainly parodied classical Minnesang topics rather than serving them. From this was coined the name that his genre of songs is known by in modern scholarship: Gegensang (Anti-Minnesang). While his contemporary colleagues, the troubadours and other Minnesingers, propagated the ideals of courtly love, Neidhart turned the established order of how to present this topic on its head. He transferred the settings of his poems from courtly realms into an apparently rustic milieu, his central characters not comprising nobles, but peasants—or so it would seem. By using this device of changing the scenery to something so obviously inappropriate, he cunningly opened up a multitude of layers of meaning. Superficially, he turned a serious matter into something hilarious, thus entertaining his audience in an unexpected way, while in his songs village-simpletons try to succeed in the tricky realms of courtly love and, of course, fail. Furthermore, he provides sex and crime through erotic or even obscene incidents, funny arguments between mother and daughter about who gets to go out with the dashing knight, as well as churlish brawls or even outright violent fights between protagonists. Hidden underneath these layers, in the background, however, Neidhart offers severe criticism of the privileged classes of medieval society. The antagonists of his songs, the rural simpletons, he names “dörper”, which can be translated as “village dwellers” or peasants (and can be seen as the German counterpart of the French “vilain”, which literally means “village dweller”, but which obviously translates as “villain”). However, with closer inspection they are not what they seem at first sight. In employing a Low German term Neidhart had artfully coined a new word in his Bavarian sphere that he used as a cipher or code for something else entirely; with his songs he meant actually to address the in-crowd at court themselves, the audience of his songs—courtiers who overdress, behave pretentiously, and act against the virtues of moderation that should govern the noble classes. Many a listener may have choked on their own laughter when thinking about the texts. Neidhart only played the fool and rather held up a mirror to his audience.
Furthermore, Neidhart tended to classify his songs into “summer” and “winter” songs, according to which season he employed in the Natureingang (nature introduction) that opens nearly every song. Here he establishes an emotional backdrop for the lyrics: “Winter” symbolizes a melancholic atmosphere and is well suited to introducing topics that strongly refer to classical Minnesang, while descriptions of the approaching summertime are generally used for lighter subjects, often containing dance descriptions.
These various ingredients made a winning combination in Neidhart’s works. His songs were popular enough to survive him by far and his œuvre and style of writing was transmitted in numerous manuscripts for the next 200 years. “A Neidhart” would come to be known as a generic term for his style and in late sources it is hardly distinguishable which parts were written by the “original Neidhart” and which were adaptions “in the style of Neidhart”. In fact it does not really matter. The reality is that the corpus of songs transmitted under the name of “Neidhart” is a treasure trove to us, because the music associated with his name is the best documented among the Minnesingers.
© Marc Lewon